Date: Year 14, day 5.
Location: A boat harbor somewhere on the west side of the Mississippi.
Miles traveled so far: About 1600, but a lot of that was going back and forth yesterday.
Miles left to go: About 900.
Things I need to worry about today: How do we get across the river?
I rolled out of the musty bottom bunk in the houseboat and tried to shake the annoying dream I’d been having. I was a pioneer in charge of getting wagons across the Mississippi River, but because I couldn’t figure it out, nobody could go west, and the East got so crowded that people had to eat each other. Why couldn’t I have gotten a good dream, like the one where if I hold my arms out I can fly?
Conner and Tan were already awake. Pippen was starting to stir. I wolfed down some granola bars and Gatorade, wrote in my notebook, doused myself with mosquito repellant, and went out to do my job.
I was surprised to see the river had risen during the night. That had me a bit concerned, since the surface of the dock had only been a foot above the water last night.
But as I got closer, I could see the dock had risen with the water. I had been too preoccupied last night to notice, but now I saw it actually floated on the surface of the water. It was made of hinged aluminum sections, with big plastic floats underneath. Tall poles held the dock in place but let it rise and fall with the river.
As interesting as the dock was from an engineering standpoint, I forced myself to quit thinking about it. It was time for me to work. I sat down on the dock, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate. How was I going to get the team across the river without leaving Arnold behind?
The answer came to me so quickly it probably hadn’t been worth the effort to sit down. Of course! I had all the pieces I needed all along!
“Eureka!” I shouted, jumping up.
Conner and Tan and Pippen burst out of the houseboat and came running down to see what “eureka” meant.
“We can ferry Arnold over!” I said. “That way we can forget about finding a bridge, and we don’t have to find another truck on the other side!”
“We’re going to build a ferry at this dock?” asked Tan.
“No, the dock is the ferry!” I said. “It’s simple! We drive Arnold out to the end, unbolt the last section, and float it across the river!”
Pippen looked skeptical. “How do you know the dock won’t sink?”
“We can do the math,” I said. “It’s just simple physics! We need to measure the volume of the floats on the bottom of the dock. Each cubic meter of volume will support one thousand kilos, because that’s the weight of the water it displaces. Once we know how much weight the floats will hold, we can estimate how much the dock itself weighs, by measuring how far the floats have been pushed into the water. Next we measure how much of each of the tires on the Humvee is in contact with the ground. We multiply that area times the tire pressure, and that will give us the approximate weight of the truck and all the gear. Then we add the weight of the truck and the weight of the dock, and see if that’s more than the buoyancy of the floats. It’s simple! Of course, the tire pressure is in pounds per square inch, and it’s easier to calculate buoyancy in metric, so we’ll have to convert units–”
“Or,” said Conner, “we could just drive the truck out very slowly, and stop if the dock starts to go under water.”
What Conner’s approach lacked in scientific rigor, it more than made up for in practical efficiency. As he backed Arnold out, the dock sank a bit lower, but the water was still well below the top of the floats. We had a ferry! I got the tools out of the back of the truck and set Pippen to unscrewing most of the bolts that held the last section of dock in place while I took Conner and Tan to the junk pile.
“Tan, I need those lawn chairs. And the propane stove Pippen had last night.”
Tan hunched his shoulders and limped off. “Yesss, master!”
I pointed to the outboard motor on the houseboat. “Conner, think you can unclamp that and carry it out to the dock?”
“Sure.” He started toward the motor then turned back toward me. “Will this science experiment use duct tape?”
I laughed. “Of course!”
Tan whistled. “That may be the strangest looking thing you’ve ever built.”
I admit my creation was a bit unusual. The outboard motor was mounted on the end of the dock. I’d taken the cover off, so all the guts were exposed. Part of the barbecue grill was attached to the engine using sections of aluminum pipe from the lawn chairs, held together with duct tape. A rubber hose led down to a propane tank. Long jumper cables lay on the ground near the motor and ran into the Humvee.
I explained. “This beautiful creature is a ferry, powered by a four-stroke gasoline outboard engine. I’ve improvised a propane carburetor out of the gas jet from the barbecue grill. Most of the time that will produce too much propane-air mixture, so I’ve vented the excess out through this pipe, where I’ve rigged a flame holder from some metal screen.”
“Wait,” said Tan, pushing forward for a closer look, “this thing shoots fire?”
“Yeah,” I said apologetically. “I didn’t have a way to build a decent on-demand regulator, so we’ll have to burn off the excess gas, or it might build up and cause an explosion.”
Pippen took a step back. “Is it safe?”
“Safe?” asked Tan. “Did you miss the part where it shoots fire?”
Conner found a long fiberglass paddle, I got a second propane tank, Tan got a lawn chair, and Pippen brought a bottle of Coke she’d found in the houseboat. We all got on the last section of dock with Arnold, and I started to unscrew the last bolt holding us to the dock.
“Wait, we have to name the ship!” said Pippen. “I name you ‘The Creature’!” she proclaimed, and smacked the bottle on the edge of the dock. The plastic bottle just bounced off. Pippen whacked it a few more times, then finally settled on unscrewing the lid, pouring the foam onto the corner of the dock and the rest into herself. I unscrewed the last bolt. Conner pushed us away from the dock, and we drifted with the current out into the river.
“Don’t you want to see if the outboard motor will start first?” asked Tan.
“All my tools are already on board,” I said. “If I have to spend time tinkering with the motor, Conner can be paddling us along while I do it. And I’m sure I can bring the creature to life. Conner, hand me your lighter.”
I opened the valve on the five-gallon propane tank and lit the end of the vent pipe. A soft blue flame shot a foot out of the pipe. Perfect! I whacked the jumper cables together and was rewarded with a crackle and a spark.
“Now, my creation,” I intoned, “arise and live!”
I touched the jumper cables to the starter-motor terminals. Sparks flew, and the flywheel twitched, but that was all.
“Oops,” I laughed, a little embarrassed. “Forgot to switch on the ignition!”
I tried again. This time the starter motor whined, and the flame jumped as the motor sucked in its first breath in fourteen years. Suddenly the engine fired and roared to life.
“It’s alive! It’s alive!” I chortled.
I twisted the throttle, and the vent flame shrank to a few inches as the engine sucked in the propane. The propeller spun, churning the water to foam. Creaking and snorting fire, the creature lumbered toward the other side of the river.
Pippen drug her fingers across the water. “Do you think we could go fast enough to water ski?”
“We’ll be across the river in a few minutes,” I said.
“Why go across?” asked Conner. “Why don’t we follow the river for a while?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Pippen said. “That way we don’t have to worry about ruined roads.”
“What do you think, Tan?” I asked.
“Aye, take her south! But keep a sharp watch for leviathan!”
I eased off the throttle so I could make sure I’d heard that right. “Watch for what?”
Tan answered in a voice I recognized as Captain Ahab from the Moby-Dick movie we’d watched a few weeks ago. “Aye, monster fish, Mister Callahan! With none to snare them, the fish in these waters are free to grow to fearsome size! Like the beast that took my leg off me!”
“A fish ate your leg?” asked Pippen, looking at Tan’s perfectly intact legs.
“Uh, well, it sort of grew back. But I swore eternal vengeance upon him anyway! I’ll chase him round perdition’s flames before I’ll give him up! The white phantom they call…” Tan looked around dramatically, “They call him Fishmael!”
I groaned and twisted the throttle open again.
We headed downstream. At first our improvised ferry had a tendency to dive under the water at the front if I applied too much power. Then I had Conner roll the Humvee a little further back so the front of the creature tipped up and we could go faster. We had a good five feet of deck space in the front, a few feet in back, and enough room to walk around the truck on the sides. Tan put on a pair of sunglasses and set his lawn chair up on the roof of the Humvee.
The river twisted and turned, and sometimes split off into different branches that eventually rejoined into a single river. We had maps that showed the river in some detail, but it didn’t look like the river had read the map lately. There were giant islands of sand that had popped up where they weren’t supposed to be. Some of them were old enough to have trees growing on them, and others looked like they could have been formed yesterday. There were also wrecked boats to avoid. Sometimes they stuck up out of the water, other times there were only ripples on the surface that hinted there might be sharp metal below. From his perch on top of Arnold, Tan watched the water for obstacles and called out directions to me.
“Ten degrees to starboard, helmsman!”
“Go right, Callie!”
Often, just past the bank of the river there would be a long dike made of dirt or stone, apparently to keep towns along the river from getting flooded. Big gaps ripped in the dikes showed that the river hadn’t liked being penned in very much. Some of the dikes had the names of the towns painted on them, otherwise we never would have been able to find ourselves on the map. There were occasional factories along the banks, and everywhere there were giant barges beached along the sides or half sunk in the middle.
When I got tired of steering, I let Conner take a turn. Pippen ran from one side of the ferry to the other, checking out birds, insects, and interesting bits of water. Tan had to remind her to put her hat on. Tan stayed on the roof, since he seemed to have an actual talent for spotting obstacles. Also he said he was “keeping an eye peeled for the monster.”
The river was beautiful. Colorful birds flew out of the trees as our fire-breathing creature growled past. Occasionally an insect would fall into the water and struggle for a few seconds before a fish broke the surface and sucked it down.
I leaned against a tire with my notebook on my lap and wrote down our adventures from the day before. The deep-cycle car batteries had been even more useful than I’d thought. They were sort of our little portable pocket of civilization. They’d provided light for us in the RV and the houseboat, and I doubt I’d have been able to start the outboard without them. If Arnold broke down, and we had to get another vehicle running, I had the tools to do it, but without a battery, we’d be sunk. A survival kit might keep us alive, but it wouldn’t get us home. I fixed the Clan Survival Manual.
Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation
A survival kit.
A charged car battery.
At noon, we cut the engine and just drifted in the current. I turned the gas off and the flame on the end of the pipe popped and went out. The outside of the propane tank had gotten cold from the rapidly evaporating propane inside, and a thin shell of frost had formed on the tank. Now with the gas off, the ice melted quickly in the warm sun. The first tank felt pretty light, so I switched to the second one. Conner got out his survival kit. “I’m going to catch us some catfish, and fry them up on the engine flame,” he announced.
He tied his fishing line to his paddle, baited a small hook with a piece of dried apricot and some peanut butter, and tossed it out into the water. On the opposite side, Pippen took off her shoes and rolled up her pant legs and wiggled her toes in the water. All of us are pretty comfortable around water. One summer Jon took us down to the lake every day until everyone in the clan learned to swim. Conner’s favorite game is to see how long he can swim under water while I time him. I’m not as good as Conner, but I’m not the worst swimmer in the clan. That would be Pippen.
Suddenly Tan jumped out of his lawn chair and shouted, “Thar she blows! Sea monster off the port bow!”
We turned quickly to look in the direction he was pointing. There was just a tiny splash in the water, no sea monster. Conner went back to his fishing, and Pippen went back to rubbing suntan lotion on her legs. Somebody really needed to have a talk with Tan. Oh wait, that was my job. I climbed up onto the roof.
“Mister Callahan! What brings ye up to the crow’s nest?”
I frowned. “Tan, we’re on a serious mission here. We’re trying to save the only living adult on earth. It would be nice if you’d come out of your fantasy world and help us.”
Tan dropped the accent and raised his sunglasses. “I live in a fantasy world? You’re the one who talks to machines!”
I backed off a bit. “Look, all of us are a bit…reality challenged. What do you expect? Our mother was a book, and our father was a movie. But when you start seeing monsters everywhere…”
“But I did see one! It was humungous and black and it had tentacles around its mouth!”
“See?” I hissed, lowering my voice. “When you say things like that, it gets poor little Pippen scared, because she’s afraid Nature is trying to kill her!”
Tan turned and looked down at “poor little Pippen,” who didn’t look terribly scared at the moment. She was lying on her back with her eyes closed, splashing her feet in the water and singing “Rollin’ on the River” very badly.
“Look,” said Tan, “I’m not really sure what I saw, but I’ve studied biology. This river is an ecosystem that had its biggest shaping force, humans, removed just fourteen years ago. That’s pretty recent in biological terms. Right now the ecosystem’s going crazy. Eventually it might snap back to the way things were before humans came along, or it might head in a completely new direction. How do you know there aren’t monsters down there?”
I tried to explain Galileo’s square-cube law to Tan. “Unfortunately, giant animals like you see in science-fiction movies can’t exist, because as a creature gets bigger, its strength only increases with the square of its size, but its weight increases cubically…”
Then I glanced down at Pippen. Just below her feet, something huge and black was rising to the surface. I couldn’t see any teeth, but it had tentacles coming off the corners of its enormous open mouth. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning. The monster closed its mouth on Pippen’s leg and dropped back down into the water, dragging her off the deck. She yelped, “Oh smurf!” and then disappeared into the murky water.
Conner was in motion instantly. He dropped his paddle, pulled his hunting knife from its sheath and ran across the deck. There was a flash of sunlight on steel as he dove into the water. Tan and I scrambled off the Humvee and stood at the edge of the dock, looking at the place where Pippen’s hat still floated on the water.
“How long?” Tan asked.
I’ve timed Conner so often that I automatically start counting in my head every time he dives under water. “Twenty seconds,” I said.
I looked around desperately for some way I could help. I grabbed the paddle, but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Thirty,” I said.
I fished Pippen’s hat out with the paddle and clutched it as I stared into the murky water. “Forty.”
“What’s his record?” Tan asked tensely.
“One minute. He can’t stay under for more than one minute.”
A few bubbles rose to the surface. “Fifty,” I said, barely able to choke out the words. “Fifty-one. Fifty-two. Fifty-three…”
At fifty-four seconds, Conner broke through the surface, knife clenched in his teeth. He spat the knife onto the deck then heaved Pippen into our arms. Her face was pale, her lips were blue, and she wasn’t breathing. Tan went into action with calm precision. He checked Pippen’s throat for a pulse. He swept his fingers through her mouth. He tipped her head back and pulled her jaw open, and placing his mouth over hers, breathed into Pippen’s lungs while I held her. After a couple of breaths, Pippen gagged.
“Quick,” said Tan, “turn her on her side!”
I did, just as Pippen barfed up several cups of river water. Then she crouched on her hands and knees and coughed, her little body shaking with the effort.
I sighed in relief and turned to Conner. “What happened to the monster?”
Conner hauled himself up onto the dock and retrieved his knife. He grinned a predator smile and wiped the blade off on his pants.
“I don’t think it’s dead, but I convinced it to change its lunch plans.”
Pippen turned her head and croaked, “Speaking of lunch–” she coughed again, then wiped grulk off her lips, “–weren’t you going to fry us some catfish?”
Conner eyed the paddle and the rather thin fishing line tied to it. “Guys, that was a catfish!”
Conner fried up a couple of cans of Spaghettios instead.
Pippen sat in the front seat of the Humvee with a towel wrapped around her shoulders and a cup of Spaghettios in her hand, while Tan stood by the open door, holding a stethoscope to her back.
“It doesn’t sound like you got much water in your lungs, so you should be okay. Your leg is pretty scraped up though. I’m going to put some antibiotic ointment on. It’s sort of expired, but it’s better than nothing.”
I’d watched Jon enough to know that as leader, when I made a mistake I was supposed to apologize. But I wasn’t looking forward to it. As soon as Tan was done bandaging Pippen, I pulled him to the relative privacy of the front of the creature.
“Tan, I’m sorry. You gave your medical opinion there were monsters in the water, and I didn’t believe you.”
To my surprise, Tan didn’t rub it in. “’Sokay. I don’t believe in myself half the time.” He lowered his head. “I’m not a real doctor you know. I’m just a fourteen-year old kid pretending to be a doctor.”
Now where had I heard that before? “Of course you’re a doctor!” I said. “You just saved Pippen’s life!”
Tan brightened a bit. “Hey, I did, didn’t I? Vega and I have been practicing resuscitation with a medical dummy. We figured we were going to need to know how to do it on Pippen eventually. We’ve gone through the procedure so many times I didn’t even think about it. It was just instinct!”
I laughed. “You were sure it was going to be Pippen?”
Tan nodded. “Of course! We even dressed the dummy up in Pippen’s clothes.”
Tan and I watched a flock of white birds with long legs and poofy feathers on their heads wading gracefully in the shallow water near the shore. The river didn’t seem as safe as it had an hour ago, but it was still beautiful. Then a huge fish with a mouth like an alligator and a body like a snake shot out of the water and chomped one of the birds. The rest of the flock exploded into flight. The fish looked like a giant monster from a science-fiction movie. We watched poofy white feathers drift back down to the water.
“I think when we get to the next big town, we should get off this river,” Tan said.
“Aye!” I said.
It was late afternoon when we finally saw the tops of some large buildings on the east side of the river. I called up to Tan, who had the map box.
“What city is this?”
“I’m not sure. I lost track a while back. I need a landmark I can find in the geography book.”
I pointed to the city. “Would a gigantic glass pyramid do? Where does that put us?”
“Egypt, I think,” said Pippen, who was back to her old self. “I knew we should have turned left at Albuquerque!”
I steered the creature around a wrecked barge and ran us hard into the sand on the east bank. We climbed into Arnold and he drove off easily into the shallow water. As soon as the creature was free, it shot up and tried to escape downstream. Conner leaped into the water and herded it back to the shore.
“Bad creature!” I scolded. “You stay right here until I come back!” Pippen threw Conner a rope and he tied the creature to a tree on the edge of the river.
We drove up a steep bank and found a paved road with a sign pointing the direction to “Downtown Memphis.”
The bridges over the river had been washed out, but the city of Memphis was on higher ground, and hadn’t gotten flooded. We drove through the center of town looking for a place to spend the night.
“It’s my turn to pick,” said Pippen. “We need a place we can take baths!”
We’d all been wearing the same clothes for five days. Conner sniffed his camouflage shirt. “I don’t smell that bad.”
“Yes you do!” Pippen and I said in unison.
“And I’ve still got river monster slime on me,” Pippen said. “Callie, turn here!”
I parked Arnold in front of a huge hotel with an outdoor swimming pool. The pool had water in it, but also a layer of green grulk floating on the top. The door was unlocked, so we went inside. There were a few past people curled up in the lobby, but no signs that any animals had gotten in.
“This is spiff!” said Pippen. She turned to Conner. “Oh, bellboy, are the elevators here working?”
“Sorry, ma’am, not today.”
“We’ll take something on the bottom floor then.”
Conner crow-barred open a few doors until we found a large room with a glass door that looked out on the pool area. It had several beds in connecting rooms, a conference table, and most importantly, a bathtub. “Dibs on the tub!” called Pippen.
The boys went out to the truck to get our camping-in equipment, while Pippen and I went through the hotel to find some water. I was hoping to find some of those five-gallon bottles they use in water coolers. We found a metal door marked “Kitchen Supplies,” which sounded promising, but it was locked, and Conner wasn’t here with Stanley.
“I’ve got this one,” said Pippen, unzipping a pocket in her cargo pants.
I knew she’d been teaching herself to pick locks, so I expected her to come up with some lock-picking tools. Instead she pulled out a pocket-sized device with a nozzle, and two metal cylinders the size of salt and pepper shakers. It had a couple of valves on top, a red button, and a trigger lever. More than anything, it looked like a miniature oxygen cutting torch.
“It’s a miniature oxygen cutting torch,” Pippen explained.
Pippen opened the valves then pressed the button, which ignited a small blue flame. She held the flame to the bolt where it was exposed between the door and the frame. When a spot on the bolt started glowing red, she pulled the trigger. I had never seen this little wonder, but I’d used its bigger brother in the school metal shop many times. Steel is actually flammable, if you can get it really hot first, and supply enough oxygen. The torch shot a jet of pure oxygen into the hot metal. Immediately, the metal burned white-hot, spitting droplets of molten steel as the torch cut through the bolt. In a few seconds the bolt was cut through, and Pippen pulled the door open.”
“Spiff!” I said. “Where can I get a mini-torch?”
“So far I’ve only found this one,” said Pippen sadly. “Cutting open a door uses up one of these little oxygen cartridges, and I’ve only got a couple of them left.”
Inside was a large storage room with boxes of things like napkins, toothpicks, and peppermints. No big water-cooler bottles, but there were stacks of boxes labeled “Perrier Sparkling Natural Mineral Water.” We figured those would work just as well. We loaded up as many boxes as we could on a metal cart and rolled them back to our room. Pippen and I opened the bottles and poured them into the bathtub.
“Hey, it’s fizzy!” laughed Pippen. Tan and Conner came back, saw what we were doing, and brought more Perrier. Soon we had a tub full of water, and a huge pile of empty green bottles.
Pippen had the first bath while the rest of us opened some cans of stew. We could hear her splashing around and giggling in the bath. The hotel room was hot, but we didn’t dare open the door to the pool because there were mosquitoes batting themselves silly against the glass, trying to get to us.
Pippen came out wearing clean clothes and her hair wrapped in a “Hotel Memphis” towel. I dug a change of clothes out of my backpack and went in next. Most of the fizz was gone, but the water was cool, and I slid all the way down until only my face was above the mineral water. Ahhh!
The Perrier was a bit gray after everyone had a turn, but we all felt much better. We sat around the big table eating mints from the supply room, while I spread out the maps and tried to figure out how much our river trip had altered our plans.
“Okay, looks like the shortest way now will be to go through Birmingham here, then down through Albany, and into Florida.”
“No,” protested Tan, “we have to go through Atlanta!”
“Oh, yeah,” said Pippen, “that’s where you said we were going to find people. What makes you think someone would have survived in Atlanta?”
Tan looked pained. “I can’t tell you! That would jinx the plan.”
I looked at the map. “Tan, going through Atlanta means we’d have to head north again. We’re trying to go south!”
“Just trust me on this!” begged Tan.
Yesterday I would have just insisted on going my way. I glanced at the red scrapes showing below the cuff of Pippen’s pants. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d believed Tan earlier. “Okay, we’ll go through Atlanta. It won’t add that much to the distance. But can you just give us a hint about why we’re going there?”
“Tomorrow,” said Tan. “I’ll explain everything tomorrow.”